The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
HOME    E-MAIL JOE    PRINT    SEND LINK     2016 COLUMNS     JOE'S ARCHIVES     SEARCH
This Is Not a Turkish Delight
Turkey's military, long the bastion of secularism in the overwhelmingly Islamic state, on July 15 tried a coup against the increasingly repressive president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Among the battle zones: Istanbul's main international airport, the hub of Star Alliance carrier Turkish Airlines. The so-called colonel's coup failed, the airport reopened and Turkish Airlines itself was later purged of alleged traitors. Even the carrier's Istanbul lounge was renamed. Here's how we covered developments. As usual, the latest item is on top, so read up from the bottom for context.

8/11/16, 9PM ET, THURSDAY
POLITICS ARE FOUL, AIRLINE DIVISION

Think you can hide from politics in business travel? Uh-uh. Everywhere you go, there it is. Consider Turkish Airlines. The state-controlled carrier has not been spared the purges since the failed coup on July 15 against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. More than 200 employees, including the chief financial officer, have been canned as Erdogan purges state institutions of supposed apostates. Meanwhile, the airline's club at its Istanbul hub has been renamed the "July 15 Heroes of Democracy Lounge."

7/16/16, 12:30PM ET, SATURDAY
ERDOGAN WINS THE DAY, ISTANBUL AIRPORT REOPENS

Here's an update on the situation in Turkey, both politically and aeronautically.

Istanbul's Ataturk Airport has reopened. There are some flights arriving and departing. Despite what are clearly politically inspired statements by Turkish Airlines, however, the situation is not "back to normal." Security is noticeably lax--a concern considering the terrorist attack there late last month. In fact, the U.S. government has told employees not to use the airport until further notice.

Similarly, the FAA has banned U.S. flights into and out of Turkey until further notice. That includes nonstops and connecting flights. Air Canada has also temporarily cancelled its flights to and from Istanbul. Air Canada and three major U.S. carriers (they rely on their code share partners for Turkey flights) have issued travel waivers for at least the next several days.

Here is what the U.S. Embassy in the Turkish capital of Ankara is saying about the situation: http://turkey.usembassy.gov/warden_information/security-message-for-u.s.-citizens-istanbuls-ataturk-airport-security-july-16-2016-july-16-2016

Now, the political situation. Although things are not totally under control, it is clear that President Erdogan and his government have prevailed. You can trace that victory to several factors:

1) Erdogan was able to use social media to get to a TV broadcaster and call his supporters onto the streets. That's incredibly ironic considering Erdogan has actively and repeatedly shut down social media access during his 10-year administration as president and, before that, prime minister.

2) The military coup was not supported by the upper echelons of the country's armed establishment. It was what experts tend to call a "colonel's coup." Possible reason: Erdogan has purged the top generals of the Turkish Army, which has long stood for a secular Turkey. Moreover, Erdogan supporters control the police, which in Turkey is almost as powerful as the Army.

3) The political establishment of Turkey, even those parties vehemently opposed to Erdogan, spoke out against the coup. That forced the governments of Turkey's NATO allies, most notably the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, to support the "democratically elected" Erdogan government.

4) Tactically, most of the insurgents refused to fire on citizens who heeded Erdogan's call to take to the streets. And without support from those citizens who oppose Erdogan, the insurgents were essentially powerless. That reluctance to kill is especially notable since the Army dissidents face a gruesome fate now that Erdogan is back in power.

7/15/16, 5:30PM ET, FRIDAY
TURKEY TURNED UPSIDE DOWN

Here is some background on the unfolding situation in Turkey. It may also be a world-turned-upside-down situation, something the cable-news networks don't fully understand and don't have enough nuanced "experts" to explain.

The Turkish military is claiming tonight (early Saturday morning Turkey time) that it has seized power from the elected government headed by president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Istanbul Airport, the key hub for Turkish Airlines and a major Star Alliance carrier, has been closed. Arriving flights are being diverted.

The key takeaway is counter-intuitive. Despite being popularly elected, Erdogan has increasingly clamped down on free speech, dissent, judicial independence and Turkey's post-World War I tradition of secular government. His party, in fact, is Islamic and has won elections in the past decades by promising to make Turkey more religious.

Moreover, the president's role in Turkey has long been largely ceremonial. However, Erdogan, himself a former prime minister, has tried to concentrate power in his hands and move the reins of government away from the prime minister. He is increasingly viewed as an autocrat even by his allies around the world.

Also worth noting: Erdogan's party lost an election last year and stalled in coalition talks with his secular opponents. He eventually called a new election in November after months of uncertainty and won, mostly because instability spooked the citizenry.

On the other hand, Turkey's military has long been seen, both domestically and globally, as the guarantor of a secular Turkey. In fact, in all of the five previous coups since 1960, the military stepped in to oust repressive civilian governments or leaders perceived as pushing the country too far toward Islamic rule.

I know that sounds weird, but you need to understand the structure of modern Turkey. That history essentially starts with Kemal Ataturk, one of the few military leaders to emerge as a hero after Turkey's defeat in World War I.

When he took political power in the 1920s, he created what is literally unprecedented even today: a secular Islamic state. Much like in the United States, he believed in a kind of Turkish separation of church and state.

Ataturk, who is revered as the father of the nation, the George Washington of the modern Turkish state, created what has come to be known as a Kemalist philosophy. He was militaristic, but he imbued the Turkish military with his secular vision. To this day, it has maintained its devotion to secular rule and lately has been resisting Erdogan's attempts to move Turkey toward a traditional Islamic-ruled state.

This is not to say that the military are unvarnished heroes and Erdogan is a black-hat villain. It's more complicated than that. Both want power and Erdogan has tried to keep the military out of civilian affairs, which he was remaking in his own image.

So this can also be seen as a classic power struggle. But you should know that the "good guys" in modern Turkey have been the military and it is well-respected by Turkish civilians, who nevertheless consistently voted for Erdogan, but mostly disliked his autocratic, religious rule.

What comes next? Who knows? Turkey is a key NATO ally although its repression of the Kurds, our other Middle East allies, is eternally controversial. Turkey is also one of the few Islamic countries with relatively good relations with Israel and the two countries were within weeks of normalizing governmental affairs.

This column is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.